San Francisco

The Past Haunts the Future at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum

The current exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is my favorite kind of museum show. Phantoms of Asia combines the old, new, profound, weird, classic and kitsch in a lineup of artists that exemplifies the infinite connections between past and present. The 150 works cover such a broad range of media and time that it is hard to not be impressed by the fluidity between the pieces. Maybe this is because, according to Jay Xu, the director of the museum, “All work is contemporary when it’s made.” Or perhaps it’s the truly fascinating patterns and connections that arise when we are given the luxury of retrospection.

The first piece that caught my attention was Takayuki Yamamoto’s What Kind of Hell Will We Go. Takayuki presented a group of Bay Area children with a painting depicting the Japanese myth of hell, after which each young artist created his or her own hell narrative and accompanying diorama. While I do not think that all children’s art is great (sorry, moms and dads), there is an undeniably profound phenomenon that occurs when the unadulterated freedom of childhood confronts ideas like mortality, or good and evil. In one example, titled “Bad Word Hell,” the speaker of bad words is repeatedly burned and then thrown in with the sharks. The piece alludes to the way in which children cope with the things they learn about the world, and how those ideas can be treated playfully while also acknowledging their seriousness.

In the adjoining room, Araya Radsjarmrearnsook’s single-channel video, The Class, takes a moment to figure out. The video was shot in an almost featureless room, draped in white cloth, with a long, thin blackboard across which someone has written “DEATH.” The teacher, Radsjarmrearnsook, lectures six figures lying on the ground, which are covered in white cloth. They are dead, and after taking in the scene I began to listen to the content of the lecture. It becomes clear that Radsjarmrearnsook is talking to the cadavers about death. Initially I chuckled to myself, and I’m sure the absurdity is not lost on any of the viewers, but the more I listened, the more I realized that the topics up for discussion were things that we all might like a chance to consider after our hearts stop beating. The video invites viewers to consider the quality of being dead, and the issues a dead person might encounter in a purgatory such as the one created by Radsjarmrearnsook. In a sense, Radsjarmrearnsook enrolls the viewer in an accelerated course, encouraging her students, which now include both the cadavers and the museum audience, to question their notions of self within this life.

Because of the volume of the exhibit, Phantoms of Asia demands that you clear your schedule before your visit. Not only are there many different works to see, but you’ll want to spend more time examining each work’s intricacies longer than the average twenty to thirty seconds most people allot for looking at art. Hyon Gyon’s painfully detailed, Hello! Another Me, for example, combines traditional and contemporary aesthetics and content in such a way that you could spend hours looking at its mystical monsters, surrounded by everything from sword hilts to McDonald’s fries and soda.

While I’ve only scratched the surface of Phantoms of Asia in this review, suffice it to say that the exhibit succeeds in connecting work made by contemporary Asian artists with the historic and masterful works of their ancestors. Themes of Asian cosmology, life, death, and ritual, as well as the relentless exploration of the unknown, flow from the works exhibited, giving viewers insight into a way of thinking that is very different than what we’re used to in the West. Phantoms of Asia will leave you haunted with a sense of wonder.